By Jack Limpert
The Washingtonian celebrated its 50th anniversary last week and it was a chance to talk with many of the magazine’s editors and writers who have moved on to other jobs. We all agreed that the magazine’s earlier years were the good old days—lots of edit pages, lots of good writing and editing jobs.
Much has been written about how the Internet has changed reading habits, causing newspapers and magazines to lose circulation. That digital whammy began to hit hard about 15 years ago when broadband replaced the old AOL dial-up service and Google and other digital newcomers made web surfing easy, useful, and fun. From about 2005 on, I could feel the pressure on the Washingtonian’s newsstand sales and subscription renewals. Why pay $29.95 a year for a print magazine when there’s so much free on the web?
But what really destroyed many of those good editing and writing jobs was an earlier digital revolution—one that started 30 years ago and cost newspapers and magazine lots of advertising pages and revenue.
Look at the Washingtonian of September 1985: a 350-page magazine with 200 ad pages and 150 editorial pages. We needed a lot of editing and writing talent to fill 150 edit pages and there was plenty of advertising and circulation revenue to pay for it.
Most of that Washingtonian ad revenue came from locally owned department stores, clothing stores, furniture stores, banks, and other businesses. Ten pages from Raleighs, the locally owned clothing stores. Multiple pages from Woodward & Lothrop, Hecht’s, and Garfinckel’s—three local department stores.
As the magazine’s editor, I knew most of the people who ran those Washington businesses. They were key players in the life of the city—I talked with them often at lunches and at meetings of organizations trying to make the city better. We loved the city and felt we were in it together. In 1989 the Washingtonian ran almost 2,000 ad pages—the smallest issue that year was 252 pages—and the editorial masthead listed lots of good journalists working at good jobs.
By 1990 the erosion of local business was accelerating. In the late 1980s better and faster computers were giving businesses—such as retail stores and banks— the ability to become more efficient and expand across the country. For insight into how that happened, see this technology time line from Walmart, one of retail’s early adapters. It explains how “For near a half a century Walmart has led the information technology charge to cope with growth and fuel its global expansion.”
In Washington, Home Depot and Lowe’s arrived and put Hechinger’s, our locally owned hardware store chain, out of business. It was exciting when Bloomingdales’s brought New York sophistication to the nation’s capital. Little did we know that the national chains—Macy’s, Nordstrom, and others—would take over our local department stores.
In the early ‘90s I was talking with John Tydings, who ran the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the city’s leading business group. He said he was worried where the city’s civic leadership would come from as the national chains took over our local businesses.
He predicted that the national chains would send executives to Washington for a few years and they’d then move on. No longer would our business leadership be home-grown with a sense of history and love for the community. The Board of Trade chair always had been a local business leader and Tydings called me the day a newcomer— AT&T’s man in Washington—was elected to run it. Washington was no longer the city he knew.
That change from being a city full of local businesses to one dominated by national chains was the first big digital change to affect journalism. Starting in the 1990s it’s where a lot of newspaper and magazine revenue and a lot of good journalism jobs went.
In 1995, the Washingtonian’s September issue was 164 pages, with 64 pages of ads and 100 pages of edit. In those 10 years most of our biggest locally owned businesses had disappeared and the national chains didn’t see our magazine the way the locals did. Instead of our having a friendly lunch at a downtown DC restaurant with a company president, the ad staff went to New York or Seattle or Cincinnati to try to get an ad schedule. It was a very different sell—don’t talk about your journalism, your role in the community, just give us your numbers.
By 2005 the Washingtonian’s circulation was at its peak—the second digital revolution was about to hit us—and the September issue that year was back over 200 pages. But selling 100 ad pages each month was a goal that increasingly was hard to reach. The November 2015 Washingtonian has 91 ad pages.
So there were two digital revolutions—the one that started in 1985 and cost us all those ad pages and revenue and the one that came 15 years later and is luring more and more readers away from print. That’s why last week we were talking nostalgically about what happened to all those good journalism jobs—and all that great journalism.